David Cronenberg has a reputation for making dark and disturbing films. His most recent work, Maps to the Stars, based on a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, will certainly not disappoint in that regard. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is the most unflattering depiction of Hollywood that I have seen since Robert Altman’s The Player. It suggests that the culture of Hollywood encourages narcissism and selfishness, as well as reckless and self-destructive behavior.
Maps to the Stars has several plot lines that eventually converge. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman just arrived in Los Angeles. She becomes romantically involved with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a popular movie but then developed a substance abuse problem. He is now making a comeback by appearing in a sequel. His mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a driving force behind his career. Havana (Julianne Moore) is a well-known movie actress. Her mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon) was also in movies. Havana is trying to get a role in a film that is a remake of a film her mother was in. She begins seeing Clarice’s ghost. She has therapy sessions with a self-help guru, Stafford (John Cusack), who happens to be Benjie’s father. Agatha gets a job working as a personal assistant for Havana. It is eventually revealed that Agatha is actually Benjie’s sister. Seven years earlier, she burned down the family’s house and almost killed Benjie during a psychotic episode. She was put in an asylum, but has now been released. Stafford has never forgiven her, and he is determined to keep her away from the rest of his family.
This film’s critique of Hollywood is intertwined with a grimly fatalistic story about incest, madness, and ghosts. (The supernatural elements may be due to the fact that the screenwriter is a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. I will have something to say about Castaneda in a future post.) These elements somewhat blunt its social criticism. However, the most striking thing about this movie is its lack of sympathy for its characters (although one feels a bit sorry for Agatha at times). Almost all of them come to bad ends. It doesn’t hold out any possibility that people can overcome their illusions or morally improve or escape their past. It ultimately feels suffocating.